The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

When that other person running the parish isn’t a priest

Here’s something relatively new that I suspect we’ll be hearing about more and more: men and women who are not priests who are assigned to work as pastoral associates at a parish. The Tidings in Los Angeles more:

“God is asking for the freedom to re-arrange the pieces of our lives,” Cardinal Roger Mahony told those gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Sept. 9 for the Mass of Commissioning of Pastoral Associates.


Each of the four commissioned, the cardinal said, have been open to change, to the “interruptions” God has brought to their lives, and has allowed God to “re-arrange their lives” so that they can respond to the call and challenge as pastoral associates.

The four newly commissioned pastoral associates are: Noel Fuentes for St. Raphael Church, Goleta; Claire Henning, St. Paul the Apostle, Westwood; Kathy Russell, St. Brendan, Los Angeles; and Deacon Bob Seidler, St. John Eudes, Chatsworth.

During his homily, Cardinal Mahony spoke from his own personal experience in the seminary and early priesthood. As a young man, though raised in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he entered St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo hoping to be ordained for the Diocese of Monterey. He wanted to work with the Spanish speaking, with migrant workers, but “God interrupted” his life.


As he told those assembled for the commissioning, “our view is limited, but the twists and turns of our lives are always to our benefit.” Most importantly, he added, “we must ask ourselves, ‘Where am I with God’s plans?’ For that is the challenge of discipleship. In St. Luke’s Gospel [for last Sunday], Jesus asked Peter, James, John and his disciples to interrupt their work, to come follow him.”

“God’s ways are not our ways,” said the cardinal. “He calls us radically to this type of relationship.”

Pastoral associates are professional ministers who share with their pastors the overall care of the parish. He or she is a member of the parish staff, usually full-time, and is accountable to the pastor. Called to serve “in the name of the Church,” they are commissioned by the archbishop after they are professionally prepared and formed for this service and leadership. (They are not to be confused with Parish Life Directors, who administer parishes which are without resident pastors.)


Each of the newly commissioned has come from a unique background and type of work experience, and each will bring her or his strengths and talents to the work of pastoral associate.

“In the cardinal’s homily I felt like it was written for me,” said Kathy Russell. “My life has been completely re-arranged. I am a widow now. I was a happy wife and mother of five, and even before my husband was ill, I felt this call to service, and he kept saying, ‘Yes, it’s who you are, and somehow you will be.’ I never imagined it would be in this form, but that’s how it all evolved.”

With a background in business, Deacon Bob Seidler has been in charge of ministries within his parish and will now assume more duties in the business area. With his commissioning he was especially happy about this further calling to minister in the church.


“As we make this public statement,” he said, “it is a message to the people of the Archdiocese: ‘Yes, lay people can come forward and do these kinds of jobs in the Church.'”

“It’s especially important,” he added, “for the three women who were commissioned today. For me it’s an affirmation of something I am pretty much already doing. But it’s a step in the right direction. For the women it is a public recognition and hopefully they will be able to go back to their own churches and have a similar public recognition in front of their own parishioners. They are filling a new role in the lay leadership in the church. We’re all called to ministry. Our baptism sends us in this direction and everyone is called. It’s just that not everyone answers that call.”


There’s more at the link about the people involved. (As an aside: it’s unfortunate that Deacon Seidler didn’t make clear that as a deacon he is not, in fact, “a lay person.”)

Photo: Cardinal Roger Mahony commissions (from left) Noel Fuentes, Claire Henning, Kathy Russell and Deacon Bob Seidler as pastoral associates during Mass Sept. 9 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. By Sr. Nancy Munro, CSJ, The Tidings

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Keith Strohm

posted September 14, 2007 at 9:05 am

I do think this is one solution that can help the shortage of priests, but it is important that lay men and women don’t become too confused about the nature of their work as pastoral associates.In taking on that role, they are participating in the Pastor’s pastoral office by virtue of delegation and not by right of their own lay office–which is fundamentally secular in character.The problem is that too many folks see this as another step in taking on priestly authority that rightly should be opened up to the laity. And that’s hooey. Boy do I sound like a curmudgeon. :)

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posted February 7, 2008 at 7:26 am

I’ve never seen a case where this sort of thing wasn’t tied up to a confusion of roles. My take over at my blog: just experienced it again yesterday at Ash Wednesday services at St Paul the Apostle in Westwood. Apparently no priests were available, because we had a service led by one of the pastoral associates, Claire Henning. She presided from the chair in her alb. The reflection was about contemplative prayer, which she likened to her happy place from childhood where she would go to mull over who she was and who she was becoming. Then she summoned up the “ministers” (all women) to distribute the ashes with her. During the intercessions, we prayed for a fast from violence during these forty days (so, um, we should have a blowout after the Easter Vigil?) Then we prayed for “the intention of this Mass (sic)”… and I don’t even remember what the intention was, because I had blown a gasket by that point. Then, in her closing words, the associate mentioned that there were prayer books at the back of church, and she said that although they were free, she really would encourage everyone to make a donation. Because, um, the church itself should be exempt from that level of generosity in its almsgiving…It was all very, well, extraordinary, as the Vatican would say. When the first reading was proclaimed, and the lector got to the bit about “notify the congregation,” those words took on new meaning for me.If one must suffer a liturgy in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, today would be the best day to do it, I suppose.Lent has jolted me awake. Sometimes grace gives you a whiplash.

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